With bands, balloons, and the clang of a bell, the Loop Trolley project officially broke ground on Thursday.
The ceremony took place at Delmar Boulevard and Limit Avenue, the border between the city and the county. Developer Joe Edwards, who spearheaded the effort to bring back the trolley service for which the Loop is named, said it was a fitting location.
"We’re bridging the city-county border, joining east and west and also north and south. This project is a great example of what can happen when we all work together," he said. "The Loop Trolley can be a source of pride for the entire metropolitan area."
A $32 million grant from the Federal Transportation Administration helped make the $44 million project possible. Mokhtee Ahmad, director of FTA Region 7, took part in the groundbreaking. He said after six years he’ll be excited to see the Loop Trolley start service next year.
"I told Joe I want to ride in the first [trolley] car, and he told me I could," Ahmad joked.
The trolley is expected to begin running in fall 2016.
The Long Track
Edwards, Loop businessman and Chairman of the Loop Trolley Transportation Development District (TDD), first proposed the trolley in 1997. He said he's excited to watch his project progress after so many years.
"Pretty much every type of transportation except jet airplanes will be on DeBalievere [Avenue]," Edwards said. "It’ll be the posterchild, I hope, for Photo and Time Magazine of how a city street can be so wonderful."
The trolley will turn south from Delmar onto DeBalievere. The avenue, now unembellished cement, will become part of the St. Vincent Greenway. This means DeBalievere will become one section in a 600 mile stretch of parks and trails that the Great Rivers Greenway District says will eventually connect the city to St. Louis and St. Charles Counties.
Edwards anticipates that they will plant over a hundred new trees and thousands of bushes along new pedestrian and bicycle paths. The TDD has planned other improvements for the whole trolley route.
Over the past year, construction around the Delmar and Skinker Boulevards has relocated utilities to prepare for the first stages of track construction. Although the TDD says the construction timeline is not exact, they have released some information.
Now that ground has been broken, work will begin Monday, March 23, on a roundabout by the Lion Gates where Trinity Boulevard meets Delmar Boulevard, and then move to the first block of tracks near Kingsland Boulevard. The demolition and construction of the new roundabout should take about twelve weeks. By the end of May, construction should continue along the rest of Delmar. From there they’ll install tracks in two blocks at a time, one eastern, one western.
Not everyone is excited
Elsie Beck Glickert, a University City resident and former councilwoman, is among four plaintiffs who filed a lawsuit in 2013. It claimed that the Missouri Legislature allowed an illegal vote that approved the 1-cent sales tax that funded the trolley. The trolley route also exceeds the approved boundaries, and is therefore illegal, according to the plaintiffs. The lawsuit was dismissed last April but reconsidered in federal court of appeals Wednesday.
Glickert said the Loop Trolley's groundbreaking was premature, since the court hasn't made a final ruling.
"It's sheer arrogance on the part of the trolley people," she said. "They asked [the decision] be hastened so they could be on with it, and then they violated their own request. It's still in litigation."
Glickert is not just concerned about the legality of the trolley construction, though. She also expects the trolley’s long-term impact to be good for large business owners like Joe Edwards, but bad for local residents.
"[Visitors] are going to spill over into the residential neighborhoods to the south of Delmar and to the north of Delmar," Glickert said, describing how she believes congestion will affect street parking and local residents. "Our library will become a public restroom."
With construction looming, several locally-owned Loop businesses are closing. Some people—including Glickert—have claimed that the Loop Trolley might be the cause.
A furniture store called Good Works closed in late 2014. Its owners told Fox and the Riverfront Times they would have stayed in business longer had they not expected trolley construction to discourage their customers. They warned that the trolley would push more and more stores out of the Loop.
The owners of two stores closing this month don’t feel quite the same.
Bill Courtney owns Cheese-ology Macaroni & Cheese, which closed March 7th. He doesn’t believe that the Loop Trolley construction would have increased or decreased his business; rather, he’s closing Cheese-ology because of rising costs.
"I have already had to respond to a few people who have made pretty snarky comments, ill-informed comments regarding my closure and a few others," Courtney said. He has faith in the TDD’s plans to keep construction impact at a minimum, and hopes that people stop spreading the misinformation that the Loop Trolley caused his closure.
Star Clipper’s co-owner Ben Trujillo gave the trolley construction more weight in his decision to close his comics store after twenty-seven years. The trolley did not determine Star Clipper’s end, but it did play a role.
"I don't see [the Trolley] as an obvious way to immediately increase visitor traffic, but I do see it as a pretty obvious impediment to casual visitors who already have problems finding parking or feeling frustrated with traffic flow," Trujillo told St. Louis Public Radio in an email. He also believes that the 1-cent sales tax hike contributed to a decline in Star Clipper’s sales over the last year.
Each new block of trolley track will close one lane and the parking lane on one side of Delmar while construction takes place in each one-two block section. Each section will take two to three weeks to complete. With decreased parking and increased traffic flow through the already-busy Loop, people worry it will be difficult to entice customers.
Edwards believes that with the currently available parking and the TDD’s plans to mediate construction impact, that shouldn’t be a problem. Instead, he thinks that the construction itself might entertain customers.
"I think we’re gonna see people eating lunch at Blueberry Hill or the Peacock Loop Diner and looking out the windows. In fact, they’re going to want to sit by the windows to watch the cranes pick up a big piece of track and lay it down," Edwards said.
For some people, parking may not be a problem, but construction could still hurt. Danial Sadri owns the Puzzles Hookah Lounge. He’s been through construction before and knows that he can’t set up outdoor tables when the jackhammers are out–which means his summer profits could suffer.
Still, Sadri thinks that the trolley will eventually decrease traffic by allowing people to park outside the Loop, then take the trolley to hot destinations like the Pageant, whose shows currently slow roads and consume parking.
St. Louis Public Radio reached out to businesses in all portions of the Loop. Of those who responded, most did worry about the short-term consequences of construction. However, many business owners, like Sadri, expect the running trolley to be a boon.
"In the farther end, it’s going to make the Loop nicer," Sadri said. "If you have a nicer city and a more radical city, you definitely get the customers later on. Maybe you’re losing customers for a couple of years while they’re doing the construction. But in the end, that’s good for the whole city."
Trujillo doesn’t think the trolley will improve the city. "It seems fairly gimmicky," he said.
If the trolley connected the Loop to areas like Washington Avenue, the Arch, Central West End, and Saint Louis University, he thinks it would “serve a real public purpose.” But as it stands, he believes that the trolley will slow traffic without providing meaningful benefits to public transportation. On top of this, he thinks the overhead lines will be “unsightly”—potentially enough to discourage walkers.
Gil Williams has higher hopes. He owns MacroSun International, and Williams says he’s seen many forms of alternative transportation while gathering the products he sells from across the world. He’s excited to see that come back to the Loop.
“The Loop is a progressive, eclectic neighborhood,” said Williams. “But it also has a lot of history to it. The trolley is a part of that history."
Courtney, meanwhile, looks at the trolley from the perspective of a future visitor.
"I’m very much looking forward to the trolley project completion so I can get up here and be a consumer here in the Loop," Courtney said.
Follow Katelyn Petrin on Twitter: @kmaepetrin